The market in Nurata is on the southern side of the town near the mosques and the path to the hill fortress of Alexander the Great. It isn’t very large but it’s a good place to observe daily Uzbek life and, as everywhere in this friendly country, to meet some of the locals. I got talking to the lady on the right in my photo, an Uzbek tourist from Tashkent, who was feeding the sacred fish in the canal and keen to practice her few words of English – as I was my even fewer words of Russian. Meanwhile Chris was invited into the front yard of a house to take a photo of this group of card-players (photo 2).
The Chasma Spring is the source of Nurata’s reputation as a holy city and place of pilgrimage. It is said to have been formed through a miracle, when Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, struck the ground here with his staff. The waters rise nowadays into a rectangular tank near the two mosques, and flow down into the town along a narrow canal which skirts the small market-place. The waters are teeming with fish, which are considered sacred and cannot therefore be caught or eaten. These fish are large and very lively (throw a handful of clover leaves into the pool and watch the reaction), and they obviously thrive in the mineral-rich water. This water is believed to have health-giving powers, so people come from miles around to anoint themselves with it, and large water-containers are sold in the nearby market to pilgrims who want to take some of the water away with them.
At the foot of the hill on which perches the fortress of Alexander the Great are a pair of mosques, the town’s Friday mosque and “everyday” mosque facing onto the same small square near the sacred Chasma Spring. It is common for Uzbek towns to have two or even three mosques – one for everyday prayer, for those who are able to come from their work or other occupations to pray in the mosque at prayer-time; one, usually larger, for Friday, the Islamic holy day, when all the men who are practicing Muslims come together to pray; and sometimes a third even larger mosque used for holidays and special occasions when all the men of the town, even the occasional worshippers, will be present.
Our guide Marat had intended that we only visit the older of the two mosques here, the everyday mosque, which was built originally for visiting pilgrims in the tenth century and which still retains its roof of 25 small domes. This is the mosque on the left of my photo (taken from the hill top fortress above), and photo 2 shows the interior of its main dome with a lacy effect created by the windows and central chandelier. But before that the friendly imam insisted that some of us at least visited the Friday mosque, which although newer and of less historic significance, was the more decorated inside. This probably explained his insistence that we see it, and as you can see on my third photo he was also keen to pose in front of the ornately carved mihrab. This mosque also boasts one of the largest domes in Central Asia, more than 16 metres in diameter, which can be seen on the right of my photo.
This is the main reason for most tourists to visit Nurata. There is supposed to have been a fortress on this hill top above the town even before the time of Alexander the Great, but it was his soldiers who strengthened it in 327 BC. It was constructed in the shape of the constellation of the Plough, and consisted of several parts, with an inner town, 500x500 meters in size, surrounded with a large wall and towers. Nurata was chosen as the site of a fortress because of its strategic setting at the border between an agricultural area and a wild steppe, making it a convenient point for gathering an army before attacking neighbouring lands.
Today the fortress is largely ruined, but it’s worth climbing the hill to get a sense of its size and layout. The climb is very easy though takes a bit of energy in the hot Uzbek sun, and you are rewarded with a good view of the town and mosques (see next tip) below. We found that people had tied small cloths to the bushes up here (see photo 3), probably reflecting Nurata’s significance as a place of pilgrimage.
There is a small charge to take photos, as everywhere in Uzbekistan – 1,000 som when we visited.